Paper tigers, red herrings and stalking horses

Sandton's World Summit on Sustainable Development - boon or burden? Gavin Lewis reports.

It is the figures that first attract attention to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The Johannesburg World Summit Company (Jowsco) has 15 000 official delegates already signed up, 5 000 of them government officials, and 5 000 media. It expects another 45 000 or so "civil society" delegates, mostly non-governmental organisations (NGOs). With less than three months to go until the Summit, Johannesburg schools have had their school holidays shifted, extensive roadworks are under way, and the body organising the NGO events, the Civil Society Secretariat, wants R100 million by the end of May to cover its costs. The WSSD itself is expected to cost R550 million besides.

Which is why many are already predicting failure. The Summit has not received strong media coverage, and the business communities seem strangely unenthusiastic. The official NGO representatives, prominent amongst them SANGOCO, have bungled and botched their way into the news, seemingly unable to get their act together for the Global Forum they are supposed to be hosting alongside the WSSD meetings to be held in Sandton from 26 August to 4 September 2002.

Jowsco is managing the Summit on behalf of the South African government, but the ultimate organiser is the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. The WSSD itself is part of a much broader process that brings together environmentalists, governments, civil society and business and labour, to focus on sustainable development in a global context.

With one man's sustainability being another man's socialism achieved through stealth, sustainable development is in itself a loaded term. The definition the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) prefers is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs". It's about combining economic development issues with environmental conservation.

UNCED, held at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, (the so-called "Earth Summit") launched the first in the series of steps that will culminate in Johannesburg this year. Since pollution knows no boundaries, and poverty puts pressure on natural resource utilisation, these things are now included in the WSSD remit. Many of these recommendations on a "sustainable economy" are included in UNCED's Agenda 21, as well as the Rio Declaration, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Control.

Well and good. The need to include environmental concerns on an economic issues agenda is so widely accepted it has become mainstream. The problem is that, in the nature of all large talkshops, it is hard to get people to do something other than talk, especially if it costs money. It is even harder to get them to agree on the interventions desired.

The WSSD has been preceded by a range of preparatory meetings on the various continents of Europe, Africa and Asia. Some idea of the controversies involved in these apparently "motherhood and apple pie" concepts of sustainable development can be read between the lines of these meetings. Thus, while on the one hand the European Community regional inter-government preparatory meeting in late 2001 (for more information, go to argued that Agenda 21 should be put into effect, that globalisation and its impact merited special attention and that the UN's Millennium Summit goals of halving world poverty by 2015 all deserved discussion, on the other hand the EC was also concerned that when it came to poverty and globalisation issues, the link between human rights and democracy and growth should be clearly understood - including issues relating to good governance, such as the rule of law. The African preparatory conference, held in Nairobi at more or less the same time, places no emphasis on the rule of law, and a lot on issues such as cancellation of debt and global assistance. In this view, poverty causes unsustainable development, and so the solution to the latter is to rapidly eliminate the former.

Somewhere in the middle is the master of compromise, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Addressing the London School of Economics in February 2002, Annan set out his vision for the WSSD. He urged that the promise of a development round of talks, agreed on at the WTO meeting in Durban last year, be given effect in order to open the markets of developed economies to labour-intensive exports from developing ones. He called for a more globally integrated approach to development. In this benevolent vision, "sustainable development is an exceptional opportunity - economically and socially - to bring people in from the margins, and politically, to reduce tensions over resources that could lead to violence…". UNCED put it slightly differently: "The planet's environmental problems were intimately linked to economic conditions and problems of social justice". That's not quite the same thing as Annan's WEHAB priorities (Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture, Biodiversity).

The Southern African Regional Poverty Network, which provides a critically important resource on regional poverty issues (, interviewed Saliem Fakir, Director of the South African Office of the World Conservation Union, on the WSSD. He pointed out some other sticking points, such as concerns that environmental issues become a stalking horse for imposing new kinds of tariff barriers.

So the aim of the WSSD is to reconcile a wide range of divergent interests around a central goal of environmental and development issues. Or, as Saliem put it, "a battle of interests around trade, energy, finance and climate change", as well as globalisation and poverty relief. At an African Conference of Civil Society Organisations, held in Nairobi earlier this year, another take on the issue emerged. It proposed "African" solutions for African problems and an "end to the numerous foreign concepts which are incompatible with the potential of Africa". The Conference also rejected the paper tiger of the " 'Washington Consensus' that breeds neo-liberal and imperialistic economic capitalism".

Indeed, many of the more interesting features of the WSSD will take place on the civil society fringe. South African NGOs are already at a disadvantage in that their interests are represented by a Civil Society Secretariat riven with factional disputes. One of the main organisers of the Secretariat, the deputy secretary of COSATU, somewhat ominously declared that all groups will be welcomed at the civil society Forum "except for groups that have a 'blatant disregard' for the principles of sustainable development". Who will judge this is left unsaid. Leftwing NGOs have been critical of the Secretariat as being too close to government. The Secretariat rejects this as "rabble rousing", in the words of Neva Makgetla, the COSATU representative. But Makgetla disingenuously continues, "this is a democratically elected government. We must not oppose it just as a matter of principle…" (Mail & Guardian, 3-9/5/02).

In fact, large segments of "civil society" in South Africa are dependent on government for their income, or on government-endorsed foreign donor initiatives. Their ability to take an independent stance is suspect. And since the civil society component of the events linked to the WSSD is by far the largest, failure on this front will cast a long shadow over the broader proceedings. The portents are not good. That may account for the lack of popular enthusiasm for the WSSD. A portent that the WSSD may serve as an idealogical battleground is a declaration signed by 200 NGOs. It calls for a halt to privatisation, and - wait for it - the abolition of the UN Security Council, the World Bank and the IMF. It appears to be a move to prevent the WSSD becoming a rich "northern government summit for unsustainable development" (Business Day 28/5/02).

Should we be hosting the WSSD at all? It is a huge leap of faith, which, if South Africa pulls it off, will expose South Africa and, amongst other things, its tourism opportunities to over 5 000 journalists. If it fails (which is unlikely for the core WSSD, as opposed to the Global Forum) the eyes of the world will still be on us. But there is no turning back now. It's a gamble, the outcome of which is difficult to predict.